Spatial Feedbacks (Love it or Hate it?)

I was hoping to make my first blog post of the year about the latest paper to come out of my work in Michigan. The paper is entitled, Filling the gap: A compositional gap regeneration model for managed northern hardwood forests and is forthcoming in Ecological Modelling. Unfortunately, despite being accepted for publication by the editors some time before Christmas, the manuscript seems to have got lost in the production system and has been delayed. If all goes to plan the paper will be out in time for February’s blog post. Instead, today I’ll highlight some other recent activities.

Between Christmas and New Year I took a bit of time to finish off a paper I was invited to submit to a special issue of Ecology and Society. The special issue will be entitled, Exploring Feedbacks in Coupled Human and Natural Systems (CHANS) and will bring together multiple different approaches for accounting for feedbacks in CHANS modelling and applications. The CHANS research framework emphasizes the importance of reciprocal human-nature interactions and the need for holistic study of humans and nature. Feedback loops can be formed in CHANS when information about one system component produces a change in a second component, which in turn provides information which produces a change in the original component.

Feedbacks loops between human and natural components of coupled systems are a primary reason that humans and nature must be investigated together to properly understand their temporal dynamics. However, as a geographer I’m also interested in the role space plays in system dynamics. It seems that there haven’t been any broad overviews or analyses of spatial feedbacks for CHANS, so I set out to produce one with the goal of improving understanding about the issue.

After a couple of drafts with very useful comments from the editors of the special issue and colleagues George Perry and David O’Sullivan, I arrived at a manuscript entitled, Three types of spatial feedback loop in coupled human and natural systems. As the title suggests, after identifying some of the key characteristics of feedbacks, I conceptualize and describe three types of spatial feedback loop. These three types address the areal growth of system entities, the importance of transport costs across space, and how spatial patterns can create feedback loops with spatial spread processes.

I won’t go into the details of these now as the manuscript is still under peer review (I think it’s a bit of a Marmite manuscript – they’ll either love it or hate it). However, I will highlight some of the simple spatial simulation models I used to help me conceptualize the feedbacks and which should be useful to help readers do the same (along with the real world examples I used). You can play with the simulation models yourself as they are freely available online. Download the models and their source code for use with NetLogo from, or use them online without downloading NetLogo from I think these simple spatial simulations should be far more helpful for understanding spatio-temporal dynamics – inherent to spatial feedbacks – than the figures I present in the paper (like that below). See what you think. We’ll find out whether the  reviewers love it or hate it in a month or two.

Since the New Year, I’ve spent most of my time working on undergraduate modules I’ll be teaching later this term. In particular, I’m developing a new module named Spatial Data and Mapping for the Principles of Geographical Inquiry course. In the module I’ll introduce students to some of the methods, tools and technologies available to collect and present spatial data. These include GPS and remote sensing (e.g., orthophotos) on the collection side and EDINA Digimap and ArcMap on the presentation side of things. Alongside lectures, there will be plenty of opportunity for students to use these tools as they will collect their own data from London’s Southbank which they will then use to create a digital map. It’s the first time running the module so there may be some teething issues, but hopefully the students will find it interesting and useful for their future studies.

I’m also teaching a PhD-level short course for the KISS-DTC entitled, Social Simulation. The course will provide an introduction to the use of computer simulation methods – notably agent-based modelling – for questions germane to social scientists. I won’t go into detail on that now, maybe in future.

Finally, I’ll just highlight some new urlists I’ve been making as resources for myself and students (and maybe you?). Urlist is a collaboration tool to collect, organize and share lists of links which I’ve found quite handy. I’ve started lists on Open Data (freely available for analysis), Spatial Data and Geodata resources and tools, and Valuation of Ecosystem Services. The Open Data list is collaborative so anyone can contribute relevant links – if you know good Open Data sources online that aren’t listed there please feel free to add!

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